THE TRIP TO ITALY: If you liked The Trip—the 2010 highbrow bro-trip comedy with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon endlessly riffing their way around Northern England under the pretense of reviewing restaurants—you'll love The Trip to Italy, because sorry, Italy is just 1,000 times prettier than England (even the Lake District). The shots here of winding cliffside roads and Mediterranean sailing are absurdly beautiful, especially accompanied by Verdi (and even accompanied by Alanis Morissette, which becomes a running joke as they sing along in the car). And the food, while nearly entirely peripheral and shown only fleetingly, looks incredible, more and more so as the men travel south. If you found The Trip somewhat annoying, as I did—their patter felt forced, competitive, and neurotic in a way that got less and less amusing—you should set that aside and consider Italy on its own merits.
Coogan and Brydon seem to have less to prove now, possibly because they're getting older and wiser; unexpectedly, their fretting about aging and death make this film both sweeter and funnier than the last (as does their obsession with exile in the form of Byron and Shelley). Italy feels lighter than The Trip, as if the scenery and the sun illuminate the fact that getting older, and even the prospect of death, are just part of la dolce vita. (Coogan's glancing angst about his son and Brydon's about an infidelity also feel featherweight, and not in a bad way.) Also, the jokes are funnier. The sequence where Brydon does a voice for a victim of Pompeii who's ossified in a coffinlike glass display box is an absolute comedic gem, and this is a typical Brydon/Coogan exchange: "Where do you stand on Michael Bublé?" "His windpipe?" If you like it when they do impressions, those are countless here, from Clint Eastwood to Richard Burton—but Claire Keelan, in a very minor role, steals that show with a quick, spot-on Audrey Hepburn toward the end. BETHANY JEAN CLEMENT
A FIVE STAR LIFE: Movies about the conflict between adventure and "settling down" are legion—The Hangover, anyone?—but A Five Star Life is mercifully understated. Its central character is Irene, a complex and attractive woman past 40 who has a glamorous job: She travels undercover to inspect the luxury hotels of the world. While the settings are gorgeous, the work is rote, which is a good twist: Irene is not a war photographer, she is a worker, and goes about her task with professionalism. She has an independence that is stubborn and innate. The original Italian title of the film, Viaggio Sola, means I Travel Alone.
Irene's sister has kids and a husband and, with increasing intensity, wants to know why Irene doesn't. Irene's best friend, a man, has impregnated a woman he barely knows and they've decided to keep the baby. Naturally, Irene finds herself at the heart of a Venn diagram of identity crises, and the usual dramatic possibilities are deployed. Will she and her best friend hook up and live happily ever after? Will she take an alluring stranger home for the night? The leaves on her plants at home die and fall on the floor, she's there so seldom, but does it matter? Margherita Buy is sensational as Irene, and director Maria Sole Tognazzi and her cowriters have created something smart, unpredictable, and about a woman. In cinema, that's a minor revolution. JEN GRAVES
EXPEDITION TO THE END OF THE WORLD: In 2011, a small and eccentric crew of artists, geoscientists, and biologists, plus an archaeologist, a photographer/theologian, and a filmmaker, convened for an adventure: to explore fjords in northeastern Greenland that, until climate change started melting the polar ice, had been inaccessible to human beings. The mission was unusual for our era not only because they were sailing through the ice on a three-masted ship, but, as geographer Morten Rasch puts it, they had no specific objective. It was just an old-fashioned, follow-your-nose exploration of regions people have not visited for millennia—and some places where humans may never have visited at all—motivated by the desire to commune, not conquer. With a soundtrack that jumps between Mozart's Requiem and instrumentals by Metallica, director Daniel Dencik has made an ominously gorgeous, philosophically rich, and sometimes surprisingly funny document of the voyage that gets uncomfortably close to the personalities of the voyagers and the stark environment they're gingerly moving through. As the expedition goes on, different crew members begin to say that the landscape is "speaking" to them, and we start to see what they are hearing—the icebergs and mountainsides seem to have personalities from lazy to playful to angry. Through Dencik's eyes, nothing is indifferent. BRENDAN KILEY
SONG OF THE NEW EARTH: Spiritual singer Tom Kenyon is really far out: He studies brain science and mysticism and psychotherapy and sound healing and getting lessons from aliens. He looks like your everyday neighbor guy, but he has an incredible singing style that he's developed and that utilizes his amazing vocal range. In addition to his unique voice, he uses instruments including singing bowls, tuning forks, and bells. His technique is mostly word-free, more like tone-chanting, and he travels all over the world doing performances and workshops. Kenyon speaks in a straightforward manner about his mystical visions, his spiritual journey, and his communication with the cosmos and intergalactic beings, but he brings a gentle sense of humor to the whole thing. His system is based on the belief that sound vibrations can bypass the rational mind and open us up to spiritual self-discovery. The documentary is a Northwest affair: Director Ward Serrill (The Heart of the Game) is Seattle based, Kenyon lives on Orcas Island, and Stranger Genius Award nominee Drew Christie provided the film's great animated sequences. Song of the New Earth is the story of a man out there seriously doing his own thing. GILLIAN ANDERSON